Secretary of State Colin Powell confirmed U.S. officials had been allowed to see the crew of an EP-3 spy plane that made and emergency landing a Chinese airbase last weekend after colliding with a Chinese plane.
“I’m pleased that [the meeting] is taking place and I hope that it is a beginning to the end of this incident,” Powell said. “I hope it will lead to the rapid release of all of the members of the crew… I hope it will lead to the rapid release of our airplane.”
Powell said he thought the meeting should have happened earlier, but said if the situation was resolved quickly, he hoped relations would not be damaged.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic standoff between the two countries continued, with Chinese officials demanding an apology and the U.S. alleging that Chinese officials improperly boarded the top-secret aircraft.
Admiral Joseph Prueher, the U.S. ambassador to China, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” he believed Chinese officials had entered the grounded EP-3 spy plane despite U.S. protests that such a move would violate the aircraft’s sovereign status.
“There is little doubt that they have been all over the airplane,” Prueher said. “We are sure that the crew is not on the airplane and we have every reason to think that the Chinese have been all over the airplane.”
So far, the U.S. has been unable to confirm whether Chinese officials had boarded the plane.
During what officials in Washington call a routine mission, a pair of Chinese fighter jets began to tail the U.S. EP-3, which collided with one of them 80 miles south of the Chinese island of Hainan. The U.S. plane made an emergency landing at an airbase on Hainan, while the Chinese fighter crashed into the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot is presumed dead.
Chinese officials have said the American plane’s 24 crew members are safe, but President Jiang Zemin has demanded an apology from the U.S. for the mid-air collision.
“The responsibility fully lies with the American side,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said today, quoting President Jiang. “We have full evidence of that… It is the U.S. airplane that flew against the rules, made dangerous maneuvers, damaged our airplane.”
Chinese officials are also insisting the U.S. explain its frequent air surveillance near the Chinese coast and why the plane entered Chinese airspace and landed without permission.